Simple approach works well at casual, attractive Juniper Grill
February 24, 2011 5:00 AM
Tacos made with grilled tilapia with spicy sauce and fresh mango salsa and served with drunken black beans and rice at Juniper Grill in McMurray
Operating partner Nick Koustis, left, and executive chef Jonathan Mulgrave of Juniper Grill
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Getting a new restaurant off the ground is hard, thus the notorious failure rate. But sitting in the packed dining room of the Juniper Grill on Washington Road in McMurray, the mysterious concept of success seems simplified: Find a suburban neighborhood with few independent restaurants, serve well-prepared, flavorful food at reasonable prices and watch your (very large) parking lot fill up.
The attractive yet casual setting is flexible enough to suit the myriad needs of suburban dining: Leather armchairs in the entryway, an enclosed heated patio and an artistically arranged birch woodpile set into the wall suggest it's worth getting a baby sitter, while flat-screen TVs and a densely packed dining room hint that kids (or raucous groups of adults) can easily be accommodated.
Juniper Grill is the sister restaurant of the local Atria's chain, and its corporate roots are visible, but relatively restrained.
Drinks were slow to arrive from the understaffed bar (one bartender, really?), but the kitchen was on point, appetizers flying out within minutes of ordering, substantial portions of cracker-like flatbread topped with chunks of shrimp, pineapple and roasted poblanos, all held together with Monterey Jack cheese ($10); or a bowl of creamy hummus, sprinkled with slices of sun-dried tomato, goat cheese and kalamata olives, served with warmed pita ($9). Wood-grilled romaine hearts were a crunchy base for creamy Caesar dressing, somewhat rubbery grape tomatoes and thick shavings of parmesan ($7).
Drink: A few decent options hide among many flavored vodka martinis; a moderate list of bottled and draft beers; wine list is loosely organized by varietals -- five house wines by the glass, $6.50; two bottles of sparkling, 14 whites and 31 reds by the bottle, almost all available by the glass; one sparkling, six whites and nine reds for $35 a bottle or less.
The menu draws inspiration from Californian cuisine, especially the southern half of the state, but there's more of an emphasis on aesthetics than ethics. There is a sustainable fish of the day (mahi-mahi at least some of the time), but there also are plenty of out-of-season vegetables, and not a hint of ingredient provenances. Instead, expect simple, well-prepared food emphasizing the flavor of just a few ingredients, with a number of excellent lighter options.
A grilled salmon fillet was served on a bed of wood-grilled asparagus, giving the delicate stalks a boost in flavor. Don't scoff at the grilled lemon on the side -- heat infuses the juices with the rind's rich aroma, and a generous squeeze worked more than the usual transformation on the salmon filet ($18).
Some ingredients needed more attention to coax out credible flavors, such as a watery roasted tomato salsa and guacamole that needed substantially more salt and lime ($6).
Grilled fish tacos are one of the most popular options, a Pittsburgh take on Mexican food by way of Southern California ($12). Juniper Grill uses flour tortillas from Reyna's in the Strip District, which are good enough to evoke an authentic Cal-Mex meal all by themselves. Moist fish and mango salsa were almost enough to evoke beachside taco stands, but ultimately these needed oomph, and less shredded lettuce.
Juniper Grill's kitchen staff, led by chef Jonathan Mulgrave, does some of its best work with meat.
Warm corn tortillas tucked into metal racks were filled with braised chicken, crunchy raw cabbage, salsa verde and cotija cheese ($9). Juicy, messy and satisfying, they lived up to their street taco name.
Chipotle might be getting a bit overplayed, but it's put to excellent use as a glaze for a plump skirt steak ($16). Each bite of juicy meat was enhanced by the intoxicating blend of smoke, heat and sweetness. The skirt steak came with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, a creamy, buttery potato that stood up nicely to the mild burn of the chile glaze.
More potatoes came alongside a bed of short ribs, slow roasted until meltingly tender, well coated with a thin, flavorful gravy that soaked into those flavorful potatoes ($19). A scoop of summer succotash came alongside, diced zucchini, tomato and corn sauteed together. Although it seemed a bit out of place in February, it nicely lightened up the dish, and was a vast improvement to a side order of roast zucchini and peppers ("seasonal vegetables," $4), which managed to be both burnt and watery.
Rotisserie chicken wasn't as impressive, as it had substantially dried out somewhere between the rotisserie grill and a heaping bowl of mesclun greens, avocado, corn, tomato, almonds, goat cheese and dates, even under a blanket of creamy bacon dressing ($12). Just leave out the chicken, as the salad was large and rich enough to serve as dinner for two or three people.
The unified focus of the savory food doesn't translate quite as well to drinks and dessert. While the cocktail list includes some complementary drinks, like a selection of margaritas, they're somewhat buried beneath specialty martinis made with flavored vodkas and super-sweet liqueurs. The overworked bartender resulted in long waits for drinks that weren't always balanced or sufficiently cold.
For dessert, both a house-made key lime pie and a triple chocolate fudge cake from an outside supplier tasted mostly like sugar ($6). Instead try an ice cream float with Sarris' vanilla ice cream and Natrona-based Red Ribbon sodas, tasty and nostalgic ($5 with a choice of cherry, grape or root beer).
Service is credible but without the subtle, thoughtful touches that make dining out feel special. Servers did a good job of answering some questions about the food, and meals were generally well paced. But on one busy night, empty glasses abandoned in the entryway were never cleared. Rather than replacing used silverware, servers simply brought more with every course, resulting in a table littered with extra spoons. One server never bothered to clear the table before dessert, leaving used forks, salt and pepper shakers and a basket of chips on the table alongside the key lime pie and ice cream.
In a busier restaurant neighborhood, Juniper Grill might be an even better restaurant, forced to compete on every aspect of its offerings. But, even with some ups and downs, the restaurant is a welcome addition to an area where a local restaurant is embraced, even if local sourcing isn't yet an essential ingredient.